Take a deep breath. Relax. Prepare to embark on a tour of the top spa packages in the world, including Thailand's renowned S Medical Spa. (Sounds taxing, doesn't it?)
Author Lawrence Osborne Photography Christopher Wise
As a rule, it’s pretty hard to find a bad spa treatment—but lots of fun to try. Spas specialize in coddling us and indulging our whims, and in recent years the field has reached hedonistic new heights. As a result, there’s more relaxing to do than ever, and so little time! In an effort to help you narrow down the many options for self-indulgence, we’ve traversed the globe to bring you the most interesting and decadent treatments at the most exquisite spas on earth. (Tough job, but someone’s got to do it.) What sets these palaces of pampering apart is the way they incorporate local customs and ingredients—offering wraps, rubs and scrubs to make you feel brand new. Enjoy.
TRAVEL WRITER LAWRENCE OSBORNE TAKES A BREATHER AT BANGKOK’S ACCLAIMED S MEDICAL SPA.
It was while I was lying in Bumrungrad International Hospital years ago, dying from an inflammation of the epiglottis, that I first discovered the inimitable Thai genius for mixing medicine with pleasure. My five-star hospital offered massage, gourmet sushi and liposuction, and there were moments when I pondered indulging in all three at once. Cured of my ailment a few days later, I was almost sorry to be discharged.
Fortunately, you don’t actually have to suffer to enjoy such synergies. Spas that mix ardent pampering with more elaborate dermatological treatments and even surgical procedures are already a growing trend in the U.S., where there are 1,800 such facilities and several state legislatures looking to regulate the industry. So-called medical spas can provide a lucrative sideline for doctors increasingly looking for revenue streams that don’t involve haggling with insurance companies, and at the same time offer beleagured patrons a one-stop wellness shop.
Bangkok’s wildly popular medical spas fuse these elements with a generous dollop of Eastern religion. One late autumn morning, slightly worse for wear after an overindulgent dinner party the night before at the home of a Thai prince, I stumble into one of these establishments, the S Medical Spa, with the intention of setting myself right. Just four years old, S, the trendy brainchild of Dr. Pakpilai Thavisin, has already established itself as perhaps the leading medical spa in Southeast Asia, rivaling the luxurious Chiva-Som in Hua Hin.
Situated on Wireless Road, next to the Nai Lert Park hotel, the low white structures of the spa share the hotel’s lavish gardens, which are famous for their stone lingams—or symbolic phalluses—left over from a previous age. (Every garden should have a few.) Huge kapok trees pressing against the windows create a mood of jungle luxury. Coming into Dr. Thavisin’s temple of healing is like stepping into a gentle future in which doctors coddle and pamper us and where healing is a consumer experience on par with gourmet shopping and mani-pedis. The only shame is that one can’t get a bypass done here, or a liver transplant. Colonic irrigation, yes.
“Art and Science” is the spa’s motto.
There are four resident doctors and acupuncturists, as well as dietitians and nurses. There’s a nutritionally approved restaurant on the ground floor, serving “S-Lite Spa Cuisine,” and a lobby that looks like that of a boutique hotel, with Naugahyde armchairs, bubbling fish tanks (though, oddly, no fish) and elegant floors decorated with colored crystals. Dressed like a runway model, and speaking flawless English, Dr. Thavisin herself ushers me upstairs to her office with a regal energy, her excellent jewelry glittering.
“We’re a new kind of clinic, I suppose,” she explains. “A fusion of a spa and a hospital. What we do here is use medically proven techniques for getting you back to your youth. Doesn’t everyone want to get back to their youth?” As we walk past treatment suites filled with hydrotherapy equipment, a pharmacy and a Botox room, I think, Some of it…. “We use everything from the West and the East,” the doctor continues. “We stimulate your lymphatic system. We improve your circulation. Botox, massage, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, ultrasound—you name it, we combine it. Then we move on to the skin treatments. I began as a dermatologist, so we are peerless on that front. I can make anyone’s skin look like a teenager’s.” Thavisin branched into holistic medicine after she lost her brother to cancer several years ago. The conventional treatments he received struck her as woefully inadequate, and she became determined to invent her own synthesis of approaches.
Since teenage skin wouldn’t really suit me, I opt for an in-house diagnostics test known as a BEM, or Bio-Energy Medicine, which involves applying sensors to my head, wrists and ankles. The sensors are hooked up to a small, box-shaped machine called a Quantum Xrroid Interface System that supposedly measures “bio-energetic forces.” True, these forces are not yet recognized by the serious scientific community, but what do they know?
If I have this right, the machine scans all 200 trillion cells in the body, measuring one’s vitamin levels, amino acids, natural sugars, toxins, hormone levels, muscle tone, disease, bacteria, molds, fungi and viruses. Following the scan, the system wants to know more. “Is sex drive deficient?” the computer wonders. “Is there an emotional link to conflict with modern society?”
Certainly not, I reply, then reluctantly plead guilty to the second count.
“Your energy flow is quite good,” the doctor tells me when the test is done. “But you are too mentally active.”
“Is there a cure?” “Diet, massage and lifestyle,” she replies. “And a dose of Thailand, too.”
It can’t be denied that doses of Thailand—even muggy, traffic-cursed Bangkok—seem to have a miraculous effect upon my usually dismal blood-pressure scores. (My typical in-country regimen of daily two-hour foot massages might have something to do with it.) My BEM results also reveal a few respiratory problems and indicate likely exposure to motor oil and grain mill dust. My “possible most stressed organ”?
“Frontal lobe, brain.”
I opt for an S massage treatment, the well-named Cool Guy Massage, which turns out to be a massage so powerful, so hypnosis-inducing that I wonder where it’s been all my life. It’s administered by a man (unusual for Thailand), a deep-tissue probing followed by a lighter surface rubdown.
As I lie there watching the banyans dripping with monsoon rain, no longer in the slightest bit stressed, I feel the force of the Thai saying (repeated in every tourist brochure) “Mai pen rai.” “Never mind” is the common rendering, but a more apt translation would be “Que sera sera.”
“Did you know that massage helps you live longer?” Dr. Thavisin asks when it’s over. “It’s proven. Massage should be part of every health care system.”
“I can’t quite imagine Congress passing massage funds,” I tell her.
“Yes, but it would make a lot of sense,” she replies. “Americans work so very hard.”
Veteran travel writer LAWRENCE OSBORNE has surprisingly supple insteps.
BORA BORA, FRENCH POLYNESIA
Part of a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific, Bora Bora brings new meaning to getting away from it all. Honeymooners and the very privileged jet in for the ultimate in luxurious escape and Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Topping it all off is the Kahaia Haven Ritual. Priced at 30,000 French Pacific Francs (about $360), the couples treatment incorporates black pearl powder and Tahitian vanilla, said to be the best and most fragrant in the world.
At the handsome cedarwood spa at Les Sources, nestled amid acres of rolling vineyards, the local vintages are put to more decadent uses than simple drinking. A day begins with a bath in a wine barrel filled with crushed grapes. Then, as a part of the Honey and Wine Wrap ($87), oenophiles are slathered in hot wine yeast and essential oils. As the sun goes down, refreshed bons vivants celebrate the power of the polyphenol with a delicious grand cru. The age-defying Madonna is reportedly a fan.
NEW YORK CITY
Masters and mistresses of the universe ascend to the 35th floor of this swank hotel, retreating to its well-appointed spa for billion-dollar views and custom treatments. A blissful two-hour Signature Therapy ($450) begins with a survey that’s only slightly less probing than an IRS audit. The payoff is a no-holds-barred massage tailored to your particular woes, accompanied by showstopping vistas of Central Park. It’s good to be king.
South of Zurich, high in the Swiss Alps, the traditional baths at Vals were redesigned by Peter Zumthor in 1996, and the resulting spaces make guests feel as if they’ve helicoptered into a Bond film (Daniel Craig era). Owing to the resort village’s middle-class roots, the treatments in this concrete and quartzite cathedral tend toward functional—think a 50-minute Lymphatic Drainage Massage (not for the faint of heart), at $158. Just lie back and contemplate modernist architecture.
There’s a reason Park Avenue grand dames and Greenwich society hostesses look so well rested (and it’s not what you think).
At the utterly tasteful Relais and Châteux property Mayflower Inn, the debutante set tops off days filled with horseback riding and doubles tennis with the Mayflower Magnetic Facial ($180), 60 blissful minutes of dermatological witchcraft said to reduce inflammation and stimulate circulation.
After decades of attending those nightly fundraiser galas, it’s just the trick.
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO
Guests at the newest Auberge resort, which sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, might feel as scaly as lizards in this arid climate. That condition is easily remedied at the resort’s airy adobe spa. You’ll start with a complimentary Purification Ritual—an exfoliation with cactus-fiber cloth, a soak and a cup of sage tea. Then it gets tastier, with treatments such as the Blue Corn and Honey Renewal ($245), a vigorous 90-minute body scrub. Bonus points for the creative use of nachos—well, blue corn—for exfoliation.
Desert roses and travel-weary golf buffs pad about in plush robes at this country-chic resort on the shores of Lake Austin. After debating the merits of local BBQ joints (a passion-stirring and exhausting pursuit), it’s time to unwind with the grand 110-minute Tour of Texas treatment ($315). Start with a prickly pear scrub, then move on to a sunburn-soothing aloe vera wrap before you “strike oil” during a massage with, you guessed it, warm essential oils.
RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO
On the east coast of Mexico, the azure sea and a salt-rimmed margarita are never far off. If that’s not enough to restore your spirit, the spa at this oceanfront resort offers a taste of the region’s Mayan roots (without the human sacrifice). During the 90-minute Cha Chac Rain Ritual ($229), named for the Mayan god of rain, a blessing is recited and incense burned. Then guests are wrapped in cornmeal and oats and left to dry before rinsing off in a rain shower.
Nestled in the wine country of Willamette Valley, the Allison Inn and Spa—the creation of philanthropist Joan Austin—is the most anticipated opening in the Pacific Northwest in years. Built in the style of a WPA lodge rendered luxurious and surrounded by tall firs, rolling vineyards and hazelnut orchards, the cozy inn serves top-end farm-to-table cuisine, and the spa features state-of-theart massage, steam baths and “pinotherapy,” which uses the Willamette’s pinot grapes to create anti-aging treatments.